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Diving with a handicap

Text: dray and Karin van Beeck
Photography: Dray van Beeck


Working as a dive guide on a live aboard, I have had many disabled guests on the boat.  I’ve always admired the way they overcame obstacles that other divers don’t even have to think about, just for a chance to get into the water.
James Wilson (32), had a motorcycle accident in 2001 which almost killed him and left him with badly mangled leg.  Nine months after the accident and suffering from severe clinical depression, he decided to go and travel around the south island of New Zealand to sort out his head and wean himself off his prescription medication.  Four months later he returned to England with a newfound enthusiasm for life, but found that his injured leg was holding him back.  He decided that he wanted it amputated to give him a better quality of life.  It took 18 months to convince his shocked family and friends, as well as his doctors and a psychologist that he was really serious about his decision.
On the day of the operation, as he was waiting for the anesthetic to kick in, he was wondering if he was losing his mind, but fell asleep before he could voice his concerns.  He woke up in agony but realized that nothing was going to make his leg grow back and that he had to learn to live with it.  He decided that the best way to do that was to set ever increasing goals, from attending a friends’ wedding, to becoming a Divemaster.  He had always wanted to learn to dive, but his injured leg made it impossible.    Once he healed he had to relearn to use his muscles and get used to walking with a prosthesis.  Having a prosthesis also finally gave him a chance to start looking seriously into the possibility of learning to dive.  He googled different dive centers to find out who would be able to accommodate him and found Mermaid Diving in Pattaya in Thailand.
He started to correspond with the staff at Mermaid to find out what his leg should be able to do.  After explaining this to his prosthesist, Ben; they build him a leg according to the specifications he asked for.  He was still having difficulty walking and not confident that he could tackle Thailand by himself, so a friend, Matty, volunteered to accompany him for the first week to help him to get settled in.  When he turned up at Mermaid Dive Centre he found out that he was the first amputee student they were ever going to train.  He also realized that becoming a divemaster was going to be much harder than he had anticipated.  Two weeks later though, he had finished his Open Water Course and was on top of the world.  It was a real struggle at times because for some reason the diving leg was a poor fit and he had to tie it on with rope to avoid losing it under water.  After a trip to Bangkok for some repairs the leg was good again.  The last problem was to find the most suitable fins.  Because he had to lock the foot to get proper propulsion, he couldn’t kick with the same strength on both sides and was feeling unbalanced in the water.  Finally he tried Force Fins and they turned out to be the best option because of their moveable rudders.  By adjusting the rudders he finally had the best results.
James stayed in Thailand for six months.  In March 2008 he returned to England after completing all his PADI training right up to Divemaster level.  He only had to complete a couple of the swim tests to be certified.  Back in England he had his walking leg remade and his diving leg fine-tuned.  A couple of months later he was back in the water, this time in Hawaii where he completed the Divemaster course.  Nowadays he regularly goes in diving trips.  The only remaining problem he still has is the artificial leg chafing his leg.  He is still hoping to find a solution and surfs the internet, even though he says that there is very little information to be found about divers with prosthesis.  If anyone has any information for him, they can contact
James Wilson is an inspiration and just shows that having different challenges should not mean you cannot dive.  It just takes a bit more planning and dedication.
James Wilson getting ready for a dive.

James Wilson getting ready for a dive.

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